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TV series digs up interesting folks buried in W.Va.

Douglas Imbrogno
"It's just something I love," says Jack Crutchfield, whose series on notable and interesting West Virginia graves, "Obscurely Famous," can be seen at 7 and 11 p.m. June 24 on West Virginia Public Television.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What do Mark Twain's grandfather, frontier scout Mad Anne Bailey, American Indian leader Chief Cornstalk, female star of early television Dagmar, Titanic survivor Eloise Hunt and one of the Civil War's youngest boy soldiers have in common?

Answer: All of their graves -- except for Twain's grandfather -- may be visited in either Cabell or Mason counties, although you might need a machete to get to some of them.

You'll learn some of this "grave history" of West Virginia if you tune in to Jack Crutchfield's "Obscurely Famous" series (for more, visit obscurelyfamous.net), which airs at 7 and 11 p.m. June 24 on West Virginia Public Television.

The roots of the series can be traced to a hobby the 53-year-old Barboursville man has long pursued.

"I've always been a history buff. I had a hobby that I like to hunt famous graves like Bonnie and Clyde, Robert E. Lee or John Wilkes Booth," said Crutchfield, who by day is co-owner of Lee Graphics Printing and Office Supply in St. Albans.

His son, Matthew, suggested he document on video some cemetery searches in West Virginia, and he would eventually aid in the shooting, editing and designing map animations for the series. Weekends may now find Crutchfield and son scouring cemeteries across the region, both well-tended city cemeteries and lost-in-the-outback family ones overwhelmed by weeds.

"So, it went from a hobby to a passion," Crutchfield said.

He spent a year researching the graves of formerly famous or somewhat famous people buried in the Cabell County hills. There is, for instance, Cooney Ricketts, who at the tender age of 13 joined the Border Rangers (the 8th Virginia Cavalry) as a Confederate private.

In Mason County, Crutchfield used a machete to cut deep into the woods and weeds to get near the grave of World War I Medal of Honor recipient Howard Chester West. His tombstone is now buried beneath a fallen tree in a cemetery long reclaimed by nature.

West served as a first sergeant on the brutal battlefields of France. In a battle at Bois de Cheppy, he stormed a German machine-gun nest, clearing the way for his unit to advance. In 1918, West was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Crutchfield hopes his series will lead to some historic preservation, cemetery style. "That, to me, is the quintessential reason I do this," he said.

Consider West, one of two Medal of Honor recipients buried in Mason County. Out of about 4.5 million soldiers who served in World War I, only 119 received the Medal of Honor, Crutchfield said.

"And that guy is out there completely lost in the middle of nowhere. I thought I'd do my little part to preserve something of his story."

Crutchfield's Cabell County episode aired in July 2011. Part of it will be seen June 24 along with all of his new episode on Mason County, at 7 and 11 p.m.

West Virginia Public Television has asked for eight segments in all, Crutchfield said. He said he would love to do all 55 counties of West Virginia "If I would have time. I don't know realistically if I'd be able to get that many finished. That's the goal, though."

It takes about seven to eight months to do one of the programs right, he said. He has paid out of pocket for the two shows so far, which cost about $8,000 each for research, travel, editing and production costs.

"Obscurely Famous" is screening as part of a public TV fundraising campaign, and Crutchfield hopes raising the profile of the series may lead to some additional support.

"I would love to find some funding to do a more complete job. I'm not in it to make money -- I would be happy to pay for what my raw costs are. It's just something I love."

As for whose grave might qualify for future episodes of "Obscurely Famous," here is Crutchfield's barometer: "Someone who touched popular history in some way or popular culture. It's a mixture of historical value and trivia."

Such as the fact that somewhere out in Mason County apparently lie the remains of the grandfather of Samuel Clemens -- aka Mark Twain -- according to a county historical marker.

His actual tombstone has yet to be found. But according to the marker, Samuel and Pamela Clemens settled in the county in 1803 and Twain's grandfather was killed in a "house raising" in 1805. The couple's eldest son, John Clemens, father of the writer who would take the pen name Twain, lived for a while in the county before moving west.

The historic value of Crutchfield's project already has led the Cabell County Library to seek copies of the video on Cabell for its main and branch libraries.

So, which West Virginia county is up next on his grave-sweeping radar? "I'm debating between Putnam and Logan," Crutchfield said.

With all the national attention from the recent History Channel series on the Hatfield-McCoy feud -- a history largely centered on Logan County -- that area is especially appealing right now, he said.

Last October, before the cable series, spin-off programs and books hit the national media, Crutchfield visited the grave of Devil Anse Hatfield, patriarch of the Hatfield clan. "It was completely overgrown," he said.

He visited again last week and a completely different scene awaited him, he recounted. "The grass is shorter than your front yard is -- it's just completely redone."

There also were about 30 people milling about who had sought out the grave.

To be sure, the visitation was all generated by the History series hoopla, he said. "Which tells me there is an interest in this."

For many of the graves on out-of-the-way, untended locations, the clock is ticking, he said. "My hopes are to somehow preserve some of this rich history that is about to be lost."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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